When I stepped to the line at Chicago last year I was scared. I was scared of so many unknowns that I wasn’t even sure what I was scared of. Then there were those things that left my legs shaking with tremors as the clock ticked down. I was scared someone was going to grab me and pull me from the line, grab me by the shoulders and scoldingly yell into my face, “What do you think you are doing here?! Get to the back of the pack where you belong!” I was scared of the more legitimate things as well. I was scared how my body was going to handle a second half/marathon of racing, a distance I had yet to surpass at speed. I was scared that I was going to hit “the wall” and either walk to the finish or drop out completely. I was scared I might push past my limits and injure myself for an indefinite amount of time. I was scared of so much…and this was great.
That fear drove me. That fear created a vessel of seriousness that took nothing on that course for granted and compelled me to run with an intent and drive like I never had before. That fear pushed out all arrogant pipe dreams and left me with a humble shell of a runner that could do nothing more than put my head down and run to the finish. It was that fear that made the race. And when it was all over, it was almost like I had nothing to be scared of in the first place. But I know this isn’t true. I had right to be scared, I just used that fear to push me beyond any obstacles, mental and physical, that were tossed into my trajectory. I used it, but didn’t succumb to it.
And here we are, almost exactly a month out from the second attempt to conquer the Chicago course, even faster than the first and the fear begins to build again. Now, about a month or so ago, I began to worry that I WASN’T WORRIED. I began to worry that the success I had at my first attempt had softened my resolve, had lulled me into a false comfort, had turned my confidence into arrogance and I worried I was going to crash and burn if I didn’t turn this attitude around. Of course, after a handful of bad training runs in even worse weather, that all started to change. Not only was I missing the marks I needed to hit in my progression up to the race, but with the race date nearing, I wasn’t sure I was every going to get where I needed to be. The concern turned to worry, the worry to fear. The fear to motivation.
It wasn’t just the speed sapping bad weather though, it was also the realization of the risk of what I’m trying to attempt. Last year I had no definitive goal except a broad window of time, a stab in the dark of inexperience, a risk with little consequence. Last year I wanted to run around 2:30, a goal time that fluxuated with my varied training runs, but ultimately left me with a loophole out of disappointment. After all, this was my first marathon, you couldn’t blame me for having a less than stellar time. The risk, if I should have broke down early in the race, was of little consequence. Just a few excuses and a humbling, “Oh well, that was a pretty good time for a learning experience,” response.
This year though, such is not the case. This year I’m scared of many of the same things as last year, aside from being yanked from the start line of course, but I’m mostly scared of the risk I’m about to take. That risk being running 5:18 minute miles for 26.2 miles. Last year I ran an average of 5:34 miles, which although decently fast, was obviously within my abilities. This year, I’ve really been working at getting to 5:18’s, but right now I’m still not convinced I’ve brought that into my window of ability, even with a few on point workouts these past weeks. The greater difference between running 5:34’s and 5:18’s is that risk, the consequence of making the attempt and failing. Sure, running 5:34’s was an awesome feat for my first attempt, but even with falling off, I didn’t have much to fall into. I would have just slowed up and still cruised in around 2:30 or 2:40 at worst. And on the flipside, being able to successfully come through the line without a complete breakdown didn’t afford me much reward aside from an immense amount of self-satisfaction and the drive to go forward. The risk simply wasn’t that great either way.
This time around though, the risk is much greater. Without a doubt, I could run 5:30’s again this year, but I would have the same reward as last year, however, if I run 5:18’s I’m looking at essentially two outcomes. The first involves the upside of the risk and it is this side of the coin that has driven me so strongly for the past year. That is the ultimate goal of running sub 2:19 and qualifying for the US Olympic Marathon Trials. A goal that wasn’t even on my radar a year ago…to say the least. That is the upside of the risk. It’s the downside that scares me. It’s the downside that fills me with fear. Again, if I ran 5:30’s and broke down, I’d just trot my weakened butt to the finish line in a less than stellar run. To run 5:18’s and break down is something entirely different. Running at that speed involves a great amount of strength and endurance, which both take a powerful toll on the body in the effort. The ability to sustain that pace involves great concentration and a meticulous refueling of the body’s stores of carbohydrates. It leaves such a minimal margin of error throughout the race, where everything needs to go just as planned so the only thing you can concentrate on is sustaining pace. Something as trivial as a shoe coming untied could ruin the entire effort. It is the toll on the body though that brings the most fear. If for some reason I’m running 5:18’s and everything starts to break down, my legs get heavy, my heart rate can’t keep up and spins wildly out of control, my body temperature rises, and so on…it becomes like a snowball tumbling down a hill, picking up more snow as it goes, getting bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous. The whole system gets taxed worse and worse and the whole machine starts to break down irrepairably. It just gets ugly, real quick. And that’s scary.
What happens if the breaking point of my efforts is before the finish line? Well, for one, I’ll tell you there is no coming back. There is no rest, recovery and resurgence. There is just breakdown and weeks of recovery. That is the marathon. What scares me is that the breakdown becomes so severe, so quickly, that I can’t even drag my ass to the finish line and I’m left stepping off the course figuring out how to meet up with my friends and family.
This is the risk of speed, running on an ever-weakening tightrope of success and disaster, trying to make it to the other end of the platform before you lose your balance and fall to the ground beyond the safety net. I feel my fear is legitimate.
But here’s the thing. I’m not scared stiff. Yeah, I’m concerned, scared even, but the measure of an individual is not that they experience fear, but how they move to overcome it. With this awareness of risk, what I can have and what I might be forced into, I’m driven again, further away from arrogance and into the depths of hard work and and a mentality steeled by the seriousness of this effort.
This year, when I step to the line at Chicago, I’ll be scared, no doubt, but I’ll also have a greater drive than I’ve ever had in a race and a reward waiting at the finish line that will be worth every step of the risk. When that gun goes off on October 10th, the fear will be left at the start and I’ll have 26.2 miles of excitingly beautiful risk to push me on. All that is left is the reward at the finish. See you there.